Is being super rich a sign of God's great favor?
Why does the Bible's Christmas story get retold each year?

Technology can either help us or be an existential threat

At the core of healthy religion is a fundamental concern for what makes us human.

Coming-waveIt is not a simple question, though people often come up with simplistic answers. But the struggle to understand who we are and who we are meant to be has no easy answers.

That said, it's hard to imagine being truly human without including some mention of our basic self-awareness, our intellectual abilities to perceive and even change the world around us and our freedom to make rational choices about how, where and even whether we will live.

It is not irrational hyperbole to suggest that if we cannot figure out how to guide, control and contain the technologies of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering -- and use them only for good purposes -- our essential humanity may be challenged.

That's the point of Mustafa Suleyman's new book, The Coming Wave: Technology, Power and the 21st Century's Greatest Dilemma.

The author, co-founder of DeepMind (now Google DeepMind) and Inflection AI, has written not a hysterical book that cries "Wolf" on every other page but, rather, a careful, thoughtful, challenging book that should give pause to us all, particularly people of faith who understand that if we lose what it means to be human we lose our way entirely. In effect, we would dehumanize ourselves.

"The coming wave," he writes, "is defined by two core technologies: artificial intelligence (A.I.) and synthetic biology. Together they will usher in a new dawn for humanity, creating wealth and surplus unlike anything ever seen. And yet their rapid proliferation also threatens to empower a diverse array of bad actors to unleash disruption, instability and even catastrophe on an unimaginable scale."

In many ways, Suleyman is picking up on and advancing ethical and moral concerns that I began writing about at least two decades ago (here and here are more recent examples) with the appearance of genetic engineering and the mapping of the human genome. Among those concerns is who owns the genome and who has control over how it's used. Similar questions need to be asked about A.I. -- before it gets used in what can only be called evil ways.

Suleyman has at least some skinny hope that humanity will avoid catastrophe as the uses of A.I. grow. But he says that the "core dilemma" is that "sooner or later, a powerful generation of technology leads humanity toward either catastrophic or dystopian outcomes. I believe this is the great meta-problem of the twenty-first century."

A.I. and synthetic biology, he writes, are simply the next in a series of huge waves -- starting, perhaps, with farming -- that one by one created the world we know today, and at an accelerating pace.

"In the space of around a hundred years," he writes, "successive waves took humanity from an era of candles and horse carts to one of power stations and space stations. . .In the coming decades, a new wave of technology will force us to confront the most foundational questions our species has ever faced. . .

"For most of history, the challenge of technology lay in creating and unleashing its power. That has now flipped: the challenge of technology today is about containing its unleashed power, ensuring it continues to serve us and our planet. That challenge is about to decisively escalate."

The reassuring thing is that Suleyman (and I hope many others in the A.I. world) understands that our humanity is at stake in this coming wave: "Technology is central to how the future will unfold -- that's undoubtedly true -- but technology is not the point of the future or what's really at stake. We are."

The service that institutional religion and less-structured spiritual movements can do for humanity now is to awaken followers to what's happening and to continue to insist on remembering what it means to be human. If we lose or compromise that, there's no future worth living.

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One of my favorite Christmas hymns is "O Holy Night." As this article from America magazine reports, the hymn originally was written in French but later translated into English to make it less didactic and more inspiring to those working against slavery in the U.S.

"However," the America piece says, 'O Holy Night' is a hymn before it is a political anthem — its primary focus is not abolition, but the Incarnation. Its epic heights are designed to make us revel in the glory of God; from there, we will be transformed." And, being transformed, we will want to work to transform evil social systems into redemptive systems.

As someone who has been to Bethlehem twice, I am at least a little bit able to put this beautiful hymn in some kind of historical context, though until reading the America article I wasn't aware of its deep connections to American abolitionists.

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P.S.: In this piece published several days ago, my friend from India, Markandey Katju, says some people see Hamas as a terrorist group and some see it as a freedom fighter. I wish he had said directly which one he thinks is right. I think the former, though for sure the Palestinian people need freedom fighters.

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ANOTHER P.S.: Why, yes, today is the 27th anniversary of the ceremony that marked Marcia's and my marriage in the chapel of Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. Thanks for remembering.


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